Darlene Hunt and Jenny Bicks gave us The Big C at a time that cancer was one of the most talked about epidemics among Hollywood—but only when it came time for celebrities to stand behind causes. Their messages were somber, delivered during PSAs or at telethons, and even those who drew from personal experiences told their stories extremely seriously. The message was always that cancer was scary; it was deadly; and it had to be stopped. And it still does. But life doesn’t have to stop with a cancer diagnosis, and Hunt and Bicks exemplified that with The Big C by creating a character in Cathy Jamison (the incomparable Laura Linney) who takes the uncertainty of tomorrow as something freeing and starts to really live for the first time in a long, long time. Hunt and Bicks weren’t shy about infusing comedy into cancer, but equally, they weren’t shy about the ugly truths of how such a diagnosis can change a whole family, and at times a more extended community, than “just” the person with the disease. And what is so much more admirable above all of their noteworthy feats is how Hunt and Bicks used Cathy’s POV over the years to alter the audience’s response to and perception of Cathy’s cancer.
Cathy’s resolve in the beginning was inspiring to the point that you didn’t want the journey to end, not only because you didn’t want this remarkable woman to die, but also because you didn’t want to lose your example of how to live to the fullest. Even in these final moments, she inspires those around her to do and be better. But as time went on, and she wasn’t getting better but actually worse as tumors spread and trials were hard to get into and didn’t quite “take” the way everyone hoped, you were forced to stop living in the moment, appreciating the days you did have with her, and look ahead to the cold, hard future. And for every cancer patient, that future includes chemo or constant other treatments to kill the cancer cells but which end up killing a whole lot more of a person’s “self.” The reward is that after months of debilitating treatments that often cause demoralizing side effects you might be deemed cancer-free and can work toward rebuilding your life to what it was before the treatments—or hopefully better. But the risk is that even after all that, the treatments still aren’t successful, and prolonged your life but stripped away a good chunk of who you were in the process, only to still succumb to the disease.
The Big C: hereafter wordlessly comments on this debate so quickly and effortlessly, it is not just a jumping off-point, plot-wise, for the final, special season but also a way to prove just how herself Cathy is in these trying moments. She’s no longer scrambling to cram in everything fun and exciting she can think of, nor is she scrambling to try to buy more time. She’s at peace, but she's still staying true to herself, like by dedicating time to learn a song on her keyboard before she "kicks it" (her affectionate words). And she’s still calling the shots as much as she can to keep some sense of control and stability—from setting up a dating profile for her husband, to asking her surrogate daughter Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) to make the dress in which she will be buried, to finally letting her son open all of his future presents in the storage unit.
And that latter scene really is a gem. It calls back the flood of emotions at the end of season one when Adam (Gabriel Basso), for the first time, realizes just how serious things are. Once again here, it is a moment to symbolize that but to show how far they both have come. Cathy squirreled away those presents at first, not wanting him to worry; he found the keys by accident and snooped—and later rejected some of the gifts because they symbolize losing his mother. But here, they are not only experiencing the emotions together as he unwraps and she explains why she chose the items she did, but she brings him into her decision regarding the diagnosis in a way she never has with anyone. It is one of the most powerful moments we have ever witnessed in this show because of all it stands for.
Cathy asks her still-teenage son if it would be okay with him if she stops treatments for her cancer. He answers, tearfully, affirmatively, and that it is all said on the matter. There’s no need to explicitly explain why she wants to do it or why she’s asking for his permission, just as there’s no need for him to explain why he answers so quickly and positively. There’s no need to discuss why it shouldn’t be seen as a woman “giving up”—there’s no indication at all that anyone should think that. Because the truth is, if you’ve been watching, you already know. You already have all of these answers.
We followed Cathy’s journey from free-spirited, fun loving, cart-wheeling, if still flawed, wife, mother, and teacher through her initial diagnosis and all of the emotional moments that come with it. We have watched her treatments strip her of that big personality, and just as there would be no desire to watch that long-term, until she’s a shell of her former self, Cathy doesn’t want to experience that, to become that. She, and this show itself, wants to go out with dignity. And thankfully, Showtime, Hunt, and Bicks have not only allowed that to happen but mastered the concept.
Without the treatments, Cathy declines and her spirit is still threatened, but the experience actually opens her up. To shield her family from the worst of it, she voluntarily checks herself into a hospice. She’s still not giving up; she manages to infuse some of her trademark life and learning in the place before wondering if maybe she jumped the gun and entered too soon. But that’s the unpredictable truth behind cancer, too: the minute you think you may have more time, it all may come crashing down. Hunt delivers the truth in this situation in every turn, especially in her turn guest starring as a hospice worker delivering the news that Cathy's insurance is refusing to pay for a long-term hospice stay because she's already been there awhile and clearly not at death's door. It's a subtle but sobering reminder that cancer isn't even the real killer in this country: bureaucracy is. Yet, it's insanely indicative of this show at its best. First of all, can you honestly imagine anyone else but Cathy checking out of hospice? But more importantly, it gives her what she needs that she was fighting (where better for Cathy to be, truly, than at home, surrounded by everything and everyone she loves?) and organically introduces the one final thing Cathy can do to control the chaos of cancer but actually forces her to consider letting go of having everything her way for a change instead.
It shouldn’t need to be said that Linney deserves every award possible for her incredibly sympathetic and gritty portrayal of the Cathy Jamison’s strength. Whether she’s finally sitting with her son as he opens all of the gifts in the storage unit or fighting her hospice roommate who is intent on smothering her because she claims death is coming for her anyway, Linney is full of grace and is as head-on fearless in tackling the ugly stuff as Cathy is in facing it. In a way this only makes Cathy’s plight that much more tragic, but beautiful, too; the show simply would not work without someone so gifted and natural in the role. Without Linney’s ability to share so much through her eyes, especially in the final hour when Cathy has limited mobility otherwise, the show would have been required to provide more exposition. Instead, we are allowed to live with Cathy and her decisions as anyone would with a family member or other loved one in such a situation: invested but helpless, understanding but still struggling to find exactly what to say to ease the inevitable.
Basso has been an unsung hero of this show, though, with arguably the second toughest yet most rewarding role as Cathy’s still-teenage son Adam. In a time when most kids feel invincible, Adam has been slapped in the face with a mature truth, and after all his flailing, he has settled into an unbelievably compassionate character, thanks in no small part to Basso’s own maturation as an actor. He has mastered Adam’s internal ups and downs and provides a pillar of strength we perhaps never would have expected from the character in the past. With all of the terrible things this family has faced, it’s refreshing to be able to believe he will be okay, coming through this with an unparalleled send of purpose. He is more like his mother than this father, after all, and if nothing else, there is a happy ending in that.
Each episode of The Big C: hereafter comes with with an increasingly emotional gut-punch, making this limited series event something you should watch unfold as intended, a little at a time each week, rather than four hours, back-to-back. The latter plan might ruin you for the rest of the week, at least.
The Big C: hereafter manages to hit you hard and in new ways each time, even though the path to the final episode—of this four part season and the series as a whole—is clearly laid out. It shouldn’t matter if you think you know exactly how it will all wrap up in the end, though: what happens is the smallest fraction of importance in a story as character rich as The Big C has been for all its years on air. Instead, it is how everything unfolds and what that means for the characters that pass and the ones that get left behind, including the audience, that matters the most. Shows like The Big C, that tell insanely intimate stories that both feel universal and written specifically for you, don’t come along often. Similarly, we will probably never get another character like Cathy ever again. It is impossible not to mourn the loss of both long after the credits roll.
Good-bye, The Big C, and thank you. You're not a loser.